Give her 46 million pounds of thanks this Thanksgiving.
Because that’s how much food Jilly Stephens and her City Harvest staff of 150 — plus 4,000 volunteers and 54,000 donors — have distributed to the hungry of New York City this year.
“It’s not just a rewarding job,” says executive director Stephens, as the neediest month of the year approaches. “It’s an honor. I say that because when I first learned of City Harvest, when I came to New York City nine years ago from working at an international aid foundation serving developing countries, I was astonished that there were people who were actually going to bed hungry in the richest city on Earth. Then I was staggered by how many were hungry. I started with City Harvest as a financial donor and a volunteer.”
Then this British native used her managerial skills to run City Harvest and battle the Dickensian hunger in our glittering city of gourmet delis and deluxe restaurants, a city where children as hungry as Oliver Twist stand on lines at soup kitchens and food pantries to fill their hungry bellies.
“We still use the same City Harvest model it’s always used,” Stephens says. “We operate 100% on private donations, no public funding. We rescue perfectly healthful food from 2,000 donors from four-star restaurants, diners, corner stores, green markets, baseball teams, hotels, airlines, bakeries, cafes, manufacturers and supermarkets like Fairway, Whole Foods, Gristedes, and distribute it to the hungry.”
City Harvest started three decades ago with one station wagon.
Today, 18 trucks and three cargo trikes collect 120,000 pounds of food a day that is sorted in a 47,000-square-foot warehouse in Long Island City, Queens.
From there, it is distributed to the hungry in 500 soup kitchens and food pantries in low-income neighborhoods across the five boroughs.
“Last year, because of Sandy, we distributed 200,000 pounds of food per day,” Stephens says. “And December is our busiest month because people are paying more for energy — and (it’s) the holidays.”
Stephens says she is humbled by the city’s generous heart.
“One of the city’s top restaurants, Le Bernardin, has a special fridge just for City Harvest,” she says. “And Pret a Manger donates packed sandwiches every day. The Hunts Point market donates 4 million pounds of food per year. Two upstate farms, Pawelski Farms in Goshen and Fino Farms in Marlborough, donated over 300,000 pounds of fresh produce this year. Last week, we had 400 volunteers helping to repack 200,000 pounds of food into Thanksgiving boxes for hungry New Yorkers to take home and celebrate Thanksgiving with their families.”
The Starr Foundation donated $50,000 this year to purchase 4,200 turkeys for Thanksgiving.
“For some reason, we can never get anyone to donate turkeys,” Stephens says. “So we need to raise money to buy them and certain other things. We raise money in imaginative ways. Recently, Marcus Samuelsson, owner of the Red Rooster restaurant on 125th St., donated a historical walking tour of Harlem and dinner for two in the Red Rooster. This prize raised $21,000 at auction. It costs us $1 to get four pounds of nutritious food to a hungry person. So that single Red Rooster meal for two will put 80,000 pounds of food on the tables of the hungry of New York.”
That’s as close to the miracle of the loaves and fishes as we’ll witness this holiday season.
This is how you make room at the table for everybody in the two-tiered city of haves and have-nots.
“Food is such an essential human need,” says Stephens. “And now that the SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) program has been cut, people are in greater need. We knew SNAP would be cut because the program is tied to the stimulus package.
“But 72% of the people on SNAP are working families with children earning under $22,392 a year. If you earn above that, you don’t qualify.”
And as benefits are cut and food prices rise, more people need City Harvest’s help.
“In the Bronx, we had 72% more visits to our pantries last year, 42% more in Brooklyn, 37% citywide. City Harvest will make sure they eat. Our mission is to end hunger in New York City. But we’re always in need of more food and financial donors and volunteers. We’re here to make sure nobody goes to bed hungry in the richest city on Earth.”
To donate, volunteer or obtain more information, visit cityharvest.org or call (646) 412-0600.
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